Researching IFLA’s history: archives

During the IFLA World Library and Information Congress (WLIC) held in Dublin. Ireland. in July 2022. IFLA’s Special Interest Group for Library History (LibHist SIG) held an Open Session focusing on our preparation for IFLA ‘s centenary in 2027.  Here I presented a keynote paper, “Towards IFLA’s centenary: historical sources and themes” (available at In it  I referred to archival sources that are worth utilizing.  I had planned to follow up those preliminary observations by spending a week exploring the IFLA archives. These are housed in the Koninklijke Bibliotheek (the Royal Library) in The Hague, the Netherlands.  After that I was to spend two days in Paris at the UNESCO archives.

Here is a report on what I found.

Most IFLA staff were on leave or working from home, but two of them, Anne Korhonen and Louis Takács, came into the office specially to help me. Assistance was needed firstly to arrange for my visit, and secondly to locate the IFLA archives. The latter is not normally a problem, but on this occasion the elevator which is normally used to access it was being serviced, and it proved quite difficult to navigate through the KB’s vast stacks to get to the IFLA archives. They are in a separate locked bay, quite close to the FID archives, which are also of interest to us.

Contrary to what I had seen on my previous visit (c. 2007) I found the archives well organized, arranged according to the various categories of documents. It is an extensive archive, dating from the early 1920s. Louis estimates its size at around 250 linear metres, including material of various types, such as pamphlets, leaflets, posters, press clippings, bound volumes (such as the IFLA Publications series), glass plate negatives, photographs, slides, audio recordings and CD-ROMs. (This is not an exhaustive list.)

Louis showed me a collection of material (about 15 linear metres) dating from IFLA’s early “League of Nations” period, when Tietse Pieter Sevensma served as IFLA’s secretary general. Sevensma was the head of the League of Nations Library in Geneva, and IFLA’s secretariat was housed there. This collection covers the period from the founding of IFLA in 1927, through the Inter-War years and the Second World War, when IFLA was largely but not entirely dormant, until IFLA was restarted in 1946. Because Sevensma’s successor as chief librarian of the League of Nations Library, A.C. Breycha-Vauthier, was later the treasurer of IFLA, this collection also contains later materials up to 1964. These materials had been transferred to the IFLA secretariat in The Hague in the late 1980s. In the meantime, Louis informs me that a great deal of material relating to IFLA can be found on a newly released online platform created by a massive project of the United Nations Library and Archives Geneva, called the “Total Digital Access to the League of Nations Archives”. The project ran from 2017 to 2022 and covers “League of Nations archives from 1920 to 1946, archives on international laws to protect refugees and minorities, the history of multilateralism, and international peace movements dating back to the late 19th century.” Read a news release about it at I’ve asked Louis to write a note about these resources for the LibHist SIG’s  blog.

In 1989 Frédéric Saby, then a student at the French national library school, spent four weeks at IFLA headquarters in The Hague doing a stage (practical student assignment). He spent the time sorting and inventorising IFLA’s archives. He also spent two days in London at the headquarters of the (British) Library Association, identifying material in the papers of Anthony Thompson, IFLA’s last part-time secretary general. Thompson served in this capacity during 1962-1970, before Margreet Wijnstroom (1971-1987) was appointed as IFLA’s permanent full-time secretary general and the secretariat was moved to The Hague (Saby 1989b). I was able to obtain a copy of his classified inventory (Saby 1989a). This is a very useful tool for those interested in IFLA’s early history and IFLA’s role during the Second World War.

Louis Takács helped me to identify what we thought would be the most relevant files, and these were moved temporarily to an office made available for my use. I started by inspecting the proceedings of IFLA’s annual meetings, generally known by their initial French title of Actes du Comité International des Bibliothèques.

Actes du Comité International des Bibliothèques 1951

The annual meetings of IFLA in the early years were called “sessions” and were essentially committee meetings of what was called the International Library Committee, which later became known as IFLA’s General Council. These were published under various titles from 1931 to 1968, as the names of the meetings changed over the years (IFLA 1931). They are very detailed, taking the form of committee minutes in which the comments of the participants are summarised in some detail.  I was greatly helped by the availability of a detailed cumulative index to the Actes for 1928 to 1964. This had been compiled by S. Randall and Anthony Thompson and published as part of the regular “IFLA Communications” in the journal Libri (Randall and Thompson 1966). (I am seriously in need of cataloguing assistance here, as there is no obvious way to add these complex documents to my Zotero citation database.)

I was concentrating on my main topic of relations between IFLA, FID and the League of Nations (from 1946 UNESCO), and UNESCO’s influence on IFLA’s development from a “gentleman’s club” to an international NGO. I was also noting material on some other themes: how the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and later the approaching Second World War (1939-1945) affected relationships with the members from the relevant countries;  IFLA’s semi-dormant period in Geneva during that war; the readmission of Germany after the war (a particularly interesting topic currently seen from the perspective of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine); the presence (or absence) of women in the annual group photographs of delegates; and the gradual increase in attendance by delegates from the Global South.

All this was taking so much time that in the first two days I barely managed to work through nine of the Actes (and none of the other materials). Then I developed Covid and had to self-isolate in my son’s 11th floor flat in a suburb of The Hague. Here I had the benefit of views through huge picture windows, from which I managed to identify eleven bird species, but could do no further work in the IFLA Archives, I also had to cancel my stay in Paris, where I had intended to visit the UNESCO archives.

This was a tantalising glimpse of a veritable treasure house of historical material. I hope to be back in The Hague next year, before or after the IFLA WLIC in Rotterdam in August.


IFLA. 1931. “Actes du Comité International des Bibliothèques [1931-1968; Title Varies].” The Hague: IFLA.

Randall, S., and Anthony Thompson, eds. 1966. Index Cumulatif des Matières/Cumulative Subject Index, Sessions 1928-1944, Volumes I-XXIX,  et IFLA Communications FIAB (LIBRI) 1951-1964. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Saby, Frédéric. 1989a. “Archives de l’IFLA: Inventaire du Fonds de Genève 1927-1965.” Unpublished typescript. The Hague: IFLA. IFLA.

———. 1989b. “Stage in The Hague, June 1989: Report.” Typescript. The Hague: IFLA (unpublished). IFLA Archives, The Hague.


About Peter Lor

Peter Johan Lor is a Netherlands-born South African librarian and academic. In retirement he continues to pursue scholarly interests as a research fellow in the Department of Information Science at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.
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